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Howard A. Learner

This Earth Month, Let’s Commit to Conservation

Conserving and protecting our vital natural resources, ecological systems, biodiversity and wildlife, and public lands and waters is an investment in our heritage and our future.

I’m writing this on the Saturday after Earth Day while outside on a warm late spring day at Berger Park in Chicago. This public park is located in an urban neighborhood along the lakeshore with lots of kids playing, older folks reading, and Loyola University students making out.  The 3.46-acre beach park land was acquired in parts by the Chicago Park District in 1957, 1974 and 1981.  Those far-sighted investments made 40 to 65 years ago enables many people to use and enjoy this park along the Lake Michigan shore today.

That’s leading me to think about ELPC’s work both looking forward to conserve more wonderful areas around the Midwest for the future, such as by expanding Wilderness Areas in Michigan and Illinois, and to protect vital natural resources, such as the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, from threats that would move us backwards.

Conserving and protecting our vital natural resources, ecological systems, biodiversity and wildlife, and public lands and waters is an investment in our heritage and our future.  Once these resources have been destroyed, the time and costs for restoration are enormous.  For example, when agricultural use of the DDT pesticide almost wiped out the population of American bald eagles in the Upper Mississippi River area, enormous public resources and private initiatives were then necessary to protect the remaining pairs of nesting eagles and restore their habitat.  Only then did the bald eagle population increase sufficiently to justify removal from the endangered species list.

The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful “30 by 30” conservation program aims to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. The goal is to protect biodiversity and address climate change, as well as expand people’s access to the outdoors.

So, here’s what ELPC attorneys and advocates are working on across the Midwest:

Expand Protected National Wilderness Areas – Illinois and Michigan: ELPC is seeking new high-level wilderness protection for lands in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois (three areas, about 13,000 acres) and in the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula (four areas, more than 50,000 acres).  Check out the ELPC-coordinated Keep the U.P Wild campaign of more than 320 members.

Restore the Great Lakes Freshwater Resources:  ELPC worked with the Congressional delegation, and partners including the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Healing Our Waters to gain a $1 billion boost for the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation on top of the existing $350 – $400 million annual appropriation.  This federal funding is vital to restore the Great Lakes, especially in light of the growing flooding threats exacerbated by climate change, and the toxic algae outbreaks resulting from agricultural runoff pollution of manure and fertilizers.  We’re looking to more protection of our amazing freshwater resources going forward, restoration of wetlands as part of nature-based solutions, and clean ups of legacy toxic areas of concern while keeping invasive species, such as bighead and silver carp, out of the Great Lakes.

Protect the Great Lakes’ National Marine Sanctuaries in Michigan and Wisconsin:  When the Trump administration sought to cut 90% of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary area in Lake Huron, along the shoreline from Alpena to Mackinac City, ELPC fought back and stopped the cutback.  The Biden administration ended this misguided rollback for the Thunder Bay NMS, which then served as a national precedent and also unlocked the door for the new Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

Clean Water Act Enforcement Litigation to Protect the Great Lakes – Indiana and Ohio:  ELPC public interest attorneys go to federal court when needed to protect Great Lakes water quality for all.  Big new victory:  ELPC’s citizens enforcement lawsuit holds Cleveland-Cliffs (formerly ArcelorMittal) accountable for its Burns Harbor, Indiana steel mill’s excessive ammonia and cyanide discharges into Lake Michigan that killed about 3,000 fish, closed beaches and threatened safe drinking water near the Indiana Dunes National Park.  ELPC attorneys are likewise in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio to require that the federal government and State of Ohio take necessary actions to reduce agricultural runoff pollution – fertilizers from crop fields and manure from CAFOs – which cause recurring severe toxic algae outbreaks in western Lake Erie.  More news on cleaning up Lake Erie to follow soon, we hope.

Protect the Great Lakes from Oil Pipeline Spill Risks – Michigan and Minnesota:  ELPC attorneys are in the courts and before state regulatory agencies challenging the Enbridge Line 3 and Line 5 oil pipelines both because of the climate change impacts and the threats of potential oil spills on Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, and the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Protect the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge – Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota: This is the gem of the National Wildlife Refuge system in the Midwest, and the 4th most visited in the country.  This Refuge was created by Congress in 1924, is a key stop for birds on the Mississippi River Flyway, and is a recognized Wetland of International Importance and a Globally Important Bird Area.  This National Wildlife Refuge is just the wrong place for a 345-kv high-voltage transmission line with up to 20-story high towers to run through.  This year, ELPC public interest environmental attorneys won an important legal victory before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. The federal court’s Opinion and Final Judgment conclude that this huge transmission line is not compatible with and cannot cut a wide swath crossing through the protected Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Expand Protection for the Iconic Driftless Area’s Vital Natural Resources and Wildlife Habitat – Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin:  The Driftless Area Land Conservation Initiative (DALCI) was a successful USDA program in 2013 – 2017 protecting the unique resources in this four-state area.  ELPC advocates are organizing bipartisan Congressional supporters to enact the DALCI 2.0 program to build on the original program’s successes to preserve the scenic Driftless Area’s landscapes and waterways, biodiversity and wildlife habitat, family farms and outdoor recreation resources.  Stay tuned.

Earth Day is a great time for celebrating the successes and progress achieved in protecting our planet. It’s a great time, too, for focusing on what we’re doing and need to do to conserve, preserve and protect our vital natural resources, ecological systems, wildlife and biodiversity, public parks and waterways, and livable communities for the future.

Howard A. Learner,

President and Executive Director

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.

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